The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers around the world for their diverse insights on U.S. policy in Asia. This conversation with Dr. Scott M. Moore ̶ Director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives in the Office of the Chancellor and Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology are Changing the Rise and Global Future (Oxford 2022) – is the 342nd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Identify China’s development dilemmas.
One of the points I make in the book is that China is increasingly exposed to environmental and technological risk just as it is passing through a dangerous phase of economic development, namely the transition to high-income status. This makes these risks, including climate risk, all the more worrisome for China’s leaders and is part of the reason that cooperation with Beijing on global challenges is so difficult. Historically, many countries see a decline or plateau in growth as they move up the income ladder, and it is also worth noting that this transition is often – though not always – associated with political reform and liberalization.
For China, navigating this transition also means dealing with the effects of COVID-19, increasing restrictions on foreign investment and technology transfer, rising global political risk, local government debt, an over-indebted property sector and a demographic crisis that will force it to rely on continuous performance improvements. What all this adds up to is a daunting and troubling set of development dilemmas that will increasingly challenge Beijing in the coming years. This challenge outlines Beijing’s approach to shared global challenges such as climate change and the regulation of emerging technologies.
What is the impact of China’s authoritarian environmentalism on protecting the planet?
As I detail in the book, China’s approach to environmental protection has several problematic features that can complicate cooperation with other countries. One is the strong role of the state, which often extends to the co-opting of environmental organizations, which often results in undermining the accountability of polluters and violators of environmental law. Another is the use of environmental protection as a justification for measures that harm marginalized populations, such as Tibetan pastoralists, who are forced to leave traditional lands to create protected areas.
Beijing has also tried, albeit with limited success, to use its climate and other environmental policies to bolster its soft power at the expense of the United States. Finally, Beijing has attempted, again with mixed results, to try to rebrand its Belt and Road Initiative as a sustainable development effort, presumably to bolster China’s soft power.
How are China-US strategic competition and environmental cooperation not mutually exclusive?
Beijing’s decision to suspend dialogue with Washington on climate change after Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan shows that environmental cooperation cannot be completely isolated from cracks in the broader relationship. But that being said, as I note in the book, there is a role for economic and geopolitical competition to help jump-start the deployment of clean technologies. President Biden justified the Deflation Act, which is the largest single investment the US has made in clean technology, in part with the need to better compete with China, for example. Competition for influence may play an even more important role when it comes to adaptation.
The US Development Finance Corporation, which was created in large part to counter China’s growing foreign influence and investment, includes a significant commitment to climate finance. If used to increase resilience, such financing can play an important role in strengthening the adaptive capacity of marginalized communities around the world in the face of climate change. Finally, as I point out in the book, there is significant potential for expanding US-China cooperation on other environmental issues, particularly biodiversity cooperation. Beijing effectively banned wildlife trade due to the pandemic, for example, opening the door to more ambitious bilateral commitments to end wildlife trafficking.
Explain the relationship between the globalization of digital data collection and the scope of China’s industrial espionage.
One observation I make in the book is that many of the risks and harms that the outside world associates with China’s rise, such as the risk of intellectual property theft and information security threats, are diminishing in China as they expand beyond China’s borders . A body of evidence suggests that information theft and forced technology transfer are becoming increasingly rare for foreign firms operating in China. However, the role of China-linked actors, including those linked to China’s security and intelligence services, in gathering data and information on foreign and Chinese nationals abroad is increasing. This increases the risk of economic espionage, transnational repression and other threats to companies and organizations operating even outside of China.
Assess how China’s next act will shape the future and its implications for US China policy.
For better or worse, the relationship between the US and China, and more broadly the relationship between foreign firms and organizations and their Chinese counterparts, is likely to be defined by rivalry for the foreseeable future. But the key message of my book is that the focus of this rivalry has broadened, from trade and military issues to environmental and technological ones. And developments in these newer problem areas are reshaping the older ones. The focus of the economic and geopolitical competition between the US and China has increasingly shifted to the development of advanced technologies, for example, while the biggest and best reason for maintaining a constructive relationship between the US and China is that Beijing’s involvement is necessary to to make progress on climate change and other global challenges. To paraphrase a Chinese proverb, China and the United States have different values but largely share the same boat. This book is about what this means for all of us, including businesses, universities and other organisations.